My Weekend: John Arnold

Times Online, October 12, 2007

“From childhood I’ve been fascinated by cacti and succulents,” says John Arnold, a partner with Lincolnshire firm Andrew & Co. Arnold is a conveyancing solicitor by trade but, once outside the office, pursues a rather more exotic interest. “They’re such unusual plants and I’ve always loved their colours and shapes.”

Arnold, 60, owes his unusual passion to his father. “He was and still is a good gardener, and encouraged me when I returned from a school trip having bought a few plants.” The familial influence continued with Arnold’s father’s sister lending him a key book, Collector’s Cacti, when he was in his early teens. “It was full of pictures of plants in their habitat in places like Mexico. It cemented my interest.”

After a degree in law at London University — during which he continued to buy seeds and plants, growing them in his own greenhouse at his father’s house — Arnold completed his articles at a South London law firm, and then, in 1972, moved to Lincoln. By this time he had become a member of the National and Cactus and Succulent Society, which, in 1983, merged with the Cactus and Succulent Society of Great Britain to form the British Cactus and Succulent Society (BCSS). Arnold is its chairman, and has travelled the world in search of cacti and succulents.

“I’ve been to the United States twice, Bolivia and Peru, and am hoping to make it to Argentina next year,” he says. The trips are more demanding than they might at first appear. “Peru in 2002 entailed a five week trek through jungle, on foot and thanks to a four-wheel drive vehicle, by the end of which we’d covered 4,000 miles. Bolivia was a three week undertaking. Sometimes the going is quite tough but the great joy of these journeys is meeting people.

“South America can get a bad press but I’ve stayed in remote Andean villages and been shown great kindness. The locals have even directed us to places off the beaten track where we would find rare plants. It’s quite something to see plants in their natural environment. The worry is that many are under threat, for example by holiday homes being built along the coast of Chile.”

Back home, Arnold no longer grows his plants in his father’s greenhouse. Instead, he has two of his own greenhouses, which house some 2,500 cacti and succulents, of around 1,000 different genera.

“People think you need a lot of heat to grow cacti well, but you don’t,” he explains. “Many of the plants survive at very high altitude — you can be in a place with snow everywhere and see cacti flowering. I’d say that at least 85% of them are used to the cold. It’s intriguing to see how they adapt and can grow in seasonally dry areas or those that might seem too cold.”

Arnold is in his fourth year as chairman of the BCSS, a role which “takes up a fair bit of time” but which he thoroughly enjoys. He is in his 35th year in the legal profession, and plans to devote more time to cacti and succulents when he retires. As he says: “life as a lawyer is fairly stressful. I’ve been in business a long time and it’s been nice, throughout, to be able to lose myself in something so totally different.”